SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- More registered sex offenders live in Bexar County than in all but three other counties in the state, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The overwhelming majority of registrants will spend the rest of their lives wearing this scarlet letter: obligated to check in with law enforcement, and put on a publicly accessible website run by DPS.
In the eyes of society, it's indefensible to defend a sex offender. But Mary Sue Molnar hopes to change your mind.
The San Antonio mother of two is the executive director of Texas Voices For Reason and Justice, an advocacy watchdog for non-violent sex offenders in the state.
“What I do... it's certainly not popular. And it's not understood," Molnar said.
Molnar launched the controversial campaign five years ago after her then-22-year-old son was convicted of a sex offense for a relationship with a 16-year-old. He was sentenced to prison and put on the sex offender registry.
“This is messed up. These laws are messed up,” Molnar adamantly stated. “A lot of these people who are on this registry for life would never hurt anyone."
Molnar argues that the registry -- created in 1991 -- gives the public a false sense of security. As of October 23, DPS reports 72,761 active registered sex offenders in Texas.
"I can type in a zip code and come up with 200 sex offenders in that zip code. I have no idea if someone should be watchful, or if somebody made a dumb mistake 20 years ago,” Molnar said. “Law enforcement cannot keep up with this growing registry. If they would focus on the few who are most likely to re-offend, then we might have something here.”
Instead, those on the register express fear, shame and scorn, well aware they’re branded by the majority of society as “the worst of the worst.”
“They see it and think that you're some sort of monster," said "Paul," a registered sex offender. Paul is now in his late 30s and asked that we conceal his identity for the sake of his safety.
More than 20 years ago, Paul drew the hammer of Texas justice for a relationship he was having.
“I was 17. She was 16,” he said. "We were dating -- stuff like that."
Today, Paul says he pays every day for what he characterizes as typical, teenage stuff. Although he insists the relationship was consensual, a court gave him 10 years probation for a charge of sexual assault of a child.
"When you're 17, you don't think of mistakes in that situation, you're thinking of yourself. You don't think you're doing anything wrong," Paul said.
Texas law argues otherwise, and now Paul finds himself a registered sex offender for life.
“I’m tired of hiding,” he said.
In Paul’s life, there is one person with whom secrecy is not needed. It’s his wife of eight years, "Suzy,” who also asked that her identity be concealed. He works in the construction field. She is in health care. They refer to the registry as a witch hunt.
"I do fear for my family, and I fear for my two young boys…knowing that people actually do know where we live ,” Suzy said.
Virginia Bulkley fears for the future. She worries about a lack of opportunity for her foster son, who at the age of 18 got into a relationship with a 14-year-old and ended up in prison and on the sex offender registry.
"How can he ever have a life that has any type of meaning or success when you have a registry that is so controlling over every issue in your life. It will limit him from jobs. It will limit him from where he's able to live."
Bulkley joined Texas Voices as she searched for hope, support, and an advocate to push for changes in the laws that spell out the state’s sex offender registry.
"There are dangerous people out there. We totally understand that. But there are so many people on that registry that did nothing but have consensual teenage sex," she said.
Molnar figures she has received several hundred letters from inmates over the last several months. She answers as many as possible along with the members of Texas Voices. She says the correspondence gives her strength.
"This is probably for legislators one of the most difficult jobs for them, because if they were to sponsor a bill to help us, they're more than likely to lose their next election,” Molnar said.
Undaunted, Texas Voices holds regular outreach meetings for its membership of roughly 1,000 non-violent, registered sex offenders and their loved ones.
Last summer, the faintest glimmer of hope took shape for the advocacy group when the state launched a new framework to start to permanently de-register sex offenders.
According to the Council on Sex Offender Treatment, which has been recognized since 1983 by the state as the experts in the treatment and management of sex offenders, 75 registered sex offenders have applied to be taken off the registry since July 2011.
The Council has approved 19 of those applicants to have a de-registration risk assessment, with just six of the applicants receiving court orders permitting them to de-register.
“It’s a start,” Molnar said.
Working nearly 24/7 for this cause from a modestly lit office in her San Antonio home, Molnar vows to fight until there’s nothing left of her. It is a debt she insists she owes to the parents of Texas.
"I think that every parent, especially those with sons, should be deeply concerned about the current laws," Molnar said, "because their sons could be on the registry in the blink of an eye."